In this issue, you’ll read about fun Florida road trips—which brought back memories of my own family trips, and this column, which we first published in 1991.
Somebody brings it up at every family reunion: “Remember the trips?”
My brothers and sisters and I roll our eyes, shuddering, then shriek with laughter. Even now, almost 30 years later, we can recall those summer car trips from Southwest Florida to our cottage in northern Michigan in every lurid detail.
Six kids, two parents and a pet or two would cram into the old blue Ford Country Squire station wagon and set off on odysseys so epic and so awful that they fused us together forever, survivors of a searing experience.
Maybe because of those memories, I’ve gone by plane on almost every vacation of my adult life. But this summer, I took my first long car trip in years, driving my daughter to camp in the North Carolina mountains. Coming back alone, I couldn’t help contrasting this trip with those long-ago journeys.
We’d always plan to leave at sunrise, but with lost items, last-minute errands and my poor mother endlessly packing and repacking the car, it would be mid-morning before children started drifting out to the driveway. Eternally hopeful, I was usually the first one in the back, often finishing most of a Nancy Drew mystery while people appeared and disappeared and my parents shouted questions and commands from the house.
Inevitably, someone erupted. I can’t recall what set her off, but I can still see my sister, Nancy, leaping out of the car, tossing her ponytail in fury. “I didn’t ask to be born!” she yelled, then ran sobbing into the house. Our long-suffering neighbors must have rejoiced when we finally set off, the top suitcase on the roof rack rocking perilously, the sounds of the first fight trailing behind us.
Hot air blasting through the windows, squabbling over leg room and comic books, we’d make our way up two-lane roads lined with orange groves and billboards promising exotic Florida experiences. We never could talk our parents into stopping at an alligator farm, but I do remember stepping on a snake when I wandered down the dusty streets of a poky little North Florida town while a mechanic worked on our engine.
We broke down at least once on every trip; suddenly the engine would start a terrifying clanking or the fan belt would begin screaming. “My God!” my father would shout, all his loud, good-humored singing of a moment ago vanished. We kids would sit frozen in terror as we lurched to the nearest service station. My brother, Jody, swears—I must have blocked this out—that one year we spent three days stuck in Ocala, waiting for a car part to arrive.
He doesn’t mention the time he got carsick on a Chicago expressway, minutes before we arrived at our ritzy relatives’ Winnetka home. We couldn’t pull over, so he had to lean out of the window, splattering the side of the station wagon. It was the first thing our stuck-up cousins pointed out when we pulled up.
Not every experience was so dismal. We’d greet each state border with excitement and watch the countryside, architecture and restaurant menus change from morning to afternoon. Grits and red Georgia clay and gracious old homes with wide front porches gave way to rushing Tennessee rivers and forested hills dotted with brown shacks. We’d pass a girl about my age trudging down the road, and I’d marvel that all over the country people were leading lives and thinking thoughts forever separate from me.
When the fighting got too loud or the alphabet and license-tag games grew stale, my father would fiddle with the radio dial. We’d lean forward, amazed at the announcers’ unfamiliar accents, straining to make out their words.
At night, we’d drive around looking for a motel with a “Vacancy” sign. Every name was evocative: The Candlelight, the Sandman, Kozy Kabins, Top O’ the World. One year our black babysitter, Ossie Lee, went to Michigan with us. All through the South, no motel would let her in. We drove through the black neighborhoods in the dark, looking for a guest house or family that would shelter her for the night, Ossie Lee holding her head high in the back seat and the rest of us ashamed for her—and for ourselves.
How we longed to stay in one of those glamorous new two-story motels like the Holiday Inn! Instead, we’d end up in structures more like the Bates Motel in Psycho, all of us crammed into one room and living out of communal suitcases. If we couldn’t find a place that would allow pets, we’d have to sneak in our German shepherds, who would bark at the slightest sound outside the door. If we were really lucky, there’d be a pool—small and murky, but a pool, nevertheless. We’d swim in the moonlight, then explore the grounds. Even the air smelled different.
My parents loved to stop at fruit stands, which disgusted me the summer I was a disdainful 13-year-old. I remember lying on the chenille bedspread in some motel and having one of those terrible teenage epiphanies while I watched my mother cut up ripe Georgia peaches and parcel out the dripping slices among the younger children. I don’t belong with these people, I shuddered to myself, looking around the littered room and overcome with revulsion for my entire family and their messy, earthy appetites.
I didn’t expect to recreate those trips this summer, but neither did I expect everything to be so different. Kate and I started out in high spirits, telling each other we were like Thelma and Louise, headed for wild adventures. (“You be Louise,” said Kate, reserving the more glamorous role for herself.)
But nobody would have made a movie of this trip. We sped efficiently up the interstate network in a climate-controlled comfort, past a never-changing landscape of cars, pine trees and billboards advertising the same half-dozen chain motels and restaurants. Except for the flat highway becoming hilly somewhere in Central Florida, the sameness was almost eerie. Even the radio never varied—songs, formats and voices the same from state to state.
Finally, guiltily thinking that Kate wouldn’t take away a single memory, I got off I-75 near Macon to drive through some pretty small towns known for their historic houses. “Look at that one!” I’d cry as we passed each beautiful mansion, and sometimes she would glance up from her Archie comic book and dutifully grunt out appreciation. In a few hours, I was glad to get back on the interstate, grateful for those wide lanes and no tense decisions about when to pass.
For the truth is, much as I’d like to picture myself as an explorer, I liked the comfort, the safety—yes, the very blandness—of this new kind of travel. And I also liked what modern technology did for the trip, from air conditioning to my radio/tape deck with its trusty scan button. NPR followed me wherever I went, and I spent hours enjoying the books on tape a friend had lent me.
And when I turned off the tape deck, I found myself soothed by the monotony of the road, suspended in splendid isolation, with rare time to think about my life and the people I was temporarily detached from. In a way, this trip was an inner journey, a welcome breather from my overcrowded life.
But when I pulled up in my driveway and started unloading the car, I felt a little wistful—even cheated. Despite all the ease and comfort, something was missing. Maybe it’s just my early conditioning, but I guess deep down I believe travel should be more than just another drive-thru experience.
I wish we’d had at least one adventure. I wish I’d stopped at a fruit stand.